This November Is My Most Ambitious Month, You Were My Friend, 29/10/2014

In a week, I officially become a playwright. I’ve written scripts, stories, blog posts, and ideas about a lot of things. But for the past month, I’ve been working with two brilliant actresses speaking the words that I’ve written. I’ve been working with an insightful and skilled director, and a dedicated and creative crew. You Were My Friend debuts in eight days. Shameless plug: Advance tickets are available.

So on November 7, we’ll see whether this career as a playwright really has any legs. I thought that today, I’d run through some of my major themes in a spoiler-free manner, to provide an easy reference point as I convince influential figures in the arts communities of Hamilton, Toronto, and the cities around and in between, to come support what is a socially, politically, and ethically valuable work of theatre. 

Hannah Ziss plays Madison, Samantha Nemeth plays
Vicki, and Mel Aravena the director took the photo. I'm
the writer. None of them would be here without me.
Probably the most important theme in the play is, and I know I’ll sound corny writing this but it’s true, the power of friendship. Vicki and Madison are two roommates in a dingy apartment in Kensington, a neighbourhood that attracts tourists from all over the world to see an authentic part of traditional Toronto life. But it’s also a neighbourhood with a lot of poverty, even as it sits among some of the most expensive property in one of Canada’s most expensive cities. 

They’re both working jobs that barely let them live with a reasonable level of dignity and self-respect for a human being. Madison is an underpaid office monkey in her mid-20s, facing the creeping anxiety that she’ll soon be made redundant. The type of work she’s done for years is being squeezed out of relevance from the contemporary business world, and a stagnating economy at the level of working people prevents her from feeling secure in her career and her income.

Vicki is in an even worse situation. The play starts as she meets and moves into Madison’s spare room. Even this mediocre futon in a room little bigger than a closet is a better deal than she was in before. She was barely old enough to drink legally, but she was homeless, kicked out of her mother’s house over crap decisions she made in her sex life. She spends the rest of the play working waitressing jobs where the customers (and occasionally the bosses) degrade and proposition her. But these are the only jobs she can find, and she’s unable even to get a loan to go to school until she’s eventually able to qualify as a mature student. 

The only bulwark against a world that’s continually wearing them down is their friendship, and their ability to talk through each other’s problems. But even this is tested eventually, as poor decisions and flashes of anger keep them from listening to each other at pivotal moments.

Vicki and Madison are stronger together than they are apart, as are we all. We’re stronger when we help each other, when we communicate well enough to build a strategy to overcome our obstacles, or at least better withstand the more powerful shocks and economic currents that would otherwise capsize us monetarily and psychologically. This is a message that people in an age of the valorization of pure individualism need to hear, and not didactically but demonstratively.

We are not alone. Or at least we need not be alone as we face currents that can swamp us, and we should not be alone. But it’s our own responsibility to reach out and end our self-destructive isolation. That itself requires strength.

It’s easier to walk away from anything than to maintain it in the face of difficulty. Here’s where what I consider the Nietzschean themes enter the dynamic of You Were My Friend. The most destructive force in the play isn’t the economy that’s ruining Madison’s career before it can even really get started, and it isn’t the morality of female purity that put Vicki out on the street. 

The narrative's most destructive force is the personal weakness that makes running away from problems and leaving our friendships, commitments, and promises behind easier than building the relationships that can overcome material adversity. You Were My Friend isn’t just a comedy of poverty (even though it’s hilarious), an actors' showcase (even though our cast is brilliant) or a tragedy of failure (even though I dare you not to cry by the end). It’s a challenge to my whole generation not to fall for the mug’s game that says it’s better to be an individual free from constraint than a person who’s empowered by what they give to others (call this the Spinozist theme).

If you want your work to make an impact, you have to think big about it. I’m talking Tunguska big; talking “I want an Ibsen Prize in the 2040s” big. Write with ambition.

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